I've never been one for official guides and maps, so on one steamy morning during a recent trip to Israel, I set off on my own personal walking tour of Jerusalem. Destination: wherever whim -- and air conditioning -- dictated. Just before noon, I found myself wandering through the dim, damp, maze-like byways of the souk, blissfully lost in the sounds and smells of the marketplace. As I followed the crowd and emerged in sunlight again, I rested at the steps of the Damascus Gate and thought about my next stop.
A pea-green Mercedes-Benz taxi pulled up, and the driver rolled down the window. "Ten shekels, ten shekels, anywhere you want to go."
I wasn't ready to give up my walking tour yet. I wanted to go the Wailing Wall, and although I wasn't sure how to get there, I was certain it wasn't far. I politely declined the cab. The driver didn't go away.
"Anywhere, anywhere, ten shekels. Where you going?"
"I don't want a cab."
"Where you going?"
"I take you, ten shekels. How much you want to pay?"
"I'm going to walk."
"You pay five shekels? You tell me what you want to pay."
I did some mental math: five shekels came out to less than $2, multiplied by the energy I would use to convince the driver to leave me alone, divided by the pain of my sunburned shoulders. My quick calculation came out in his favor. I peered through the high-noon glare at the driver. He was handsome, and he was smiling. In the office building where I work in Boston, even corporate neighbors riding the same elevator can't bring themselves to smile at each other.
I got in. Sitting next to him, I guessed he was Arab, in his early thirties. He was circumspect but friendly, and eager to take me anywhere. Anywhere, it turned out, except where I wanted to go.
"I show you Mount of Olives," he said, "the beautiful panoramic view. You like it." No, no, no, I insisted. I've already been to the Mount of Olives. I want to go to the Wall, I kept repeating, and he told me what a beautiful American girl I am, so pretty, take off your sunglasses so I can see your eyes. When we drove by the sign pointing us toward the Mount of Olives, it seemed to be wagging a finger at me. Somewhere between my heart and my stomach, regret poked itself like a cold metal compass in all four directions.
I chastised myself as if I were my mother. I had willingly abandoned caution -- and because I started out somewhere I shouldn't have been, I was going to end up somewhere I shouldn't be. Maybe no one smiles at you on the elevator, I scolded myself, but at least you get to the seventh floor without incident. The driver steered the car slowly up a dirt path, up and up and up. We passed ancient cars perched on cement blocks, ready to careen across Jerusalem if only their owners would return to claim them. But there was no one for miles; it seemed to me the entire country had emptied itself at that moment.
My escort asked me my name. He rolled it on his tongue. "Al-i-son. Al-i-son." His English was very good.
I glanced down at my Star of David necklace. I wondered if he had seen it, or if it mattered to him that I was Jewish. The only thing that mattered to me was that he was a man, and I was stuck in his car. Had I come all this way to get charmed into a situation I would have avoided at home? There was no room for weakness, I realized, so I chatted back as cheerfully and confidently as if we were on our way to the movies. Make him laugh, I told myself. Make him your friend.
At the top of the Mount of Olives, I jumped out to take the requisite pictures of the beautiful panoramic view. As I snapped away, I felt a hand on my shoulder, pulling me close. I moved away. "I am Mahmoud," he said. "It's very nice to meet you, Al-i-son."
He took my hand and kissed it, and then pulled me toward him. I quickly stepped back. He again held my arm and pulled me into a too-close hug. I moved away and shook my head, quickly scanning the desolate landscape. There was nowhere to go, no one to run to.
"I take a picture of you," he suggested. Loath to prolong our time together, I reminded him that I already knew what I looked like. He threw his head back, and laughed and laughed. I felt pure relief; we had finally connected. We were no longer native and tourist, Arab and Jew, man and woman. We were friends.
"So, do you normally go around picking up American girls?" I asked as we settled back into the car.
Mahmoud had been smiling but now he grew serious. "Oh, never before. I saw something in you. I saw we should be together. You are very special. I could see that at the very beginning."
Friends? I had been fooling myself. "Now can we go to the Wall?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
But Mahmoud drove down a different way, through the crowded throngs of East Jerusalem. He negotiated the car slowly, almost at pedestrian pace himself, greeting everyone he knew. Every man and woman in East Jerusalem peered inside the car, it seemed. Mahmoud, you going home later? Mahmoud, how is your mother? He translated for me as we crept through the street.
"Al-i-son," he said, turning toward me, "we go to Ramallah, meet my mother. You want coffee? Real coffee? We have coffee with my brothers." He smiled again -- the Damascus Gate smile that got me in the car. "I take you, I take you," he repeated.
But he stopped asking even before I told him no. Instead, he announced he was buying us drinks. I don't want a drink, I told him.
"Well, I am thirsty," he said. "What would you like?"
"What would you like?"
He gave me an exasperated, married-for-decades look.
"Diet Coke," I said.
He disappeared into a tiny store and quickly poked out his head.
"No Diet," shouted my abductor, my would-be husband, my weight-loss watchdog. "Anything else you want?"
Finally, we started again and he drove me to the Wall. Just outside the gates, he stopped the car, gripped the wheel with both hands, and turned to me.
"I want to see you again."
"I don't think so."
"I need to see you again. Can I please call you?"
I looked at him. Maybe the spark that his Damascus Gate smile had ignited deserved attention. I didn't dislike him, and for a while, we were at home in our bizarre coupling. Then again, he was kind of kidnapping me. I hadn't wanted to go the Mount of Olives with him; I hadn't asked for any of this. Maybe he thought my decision to get in the car expressed a wordless acquiescence. Cultural cues and everything. And, after all, he hadn't rushed me off to Ramallah. Could I possibly see him again, explore this weird thing?
"I'm sorry, no."
He sat quietly, chin on chest. "Do you have paper? I give you my phone number. You call me. I need to see you again. You call me?"
He scribbled something on a scrap of paper, kissed my hand, then my cheek. I hurried away and took refuge behind one of the colossal stone gates shielding Jerusalem from the rest of the world. I unfolded the crumpled rectangle Mahmoud had pressed on me. He had scrawled his name as if it were a miniature mountain, as rough and strong as the one we had just traveled far, far away from. I held it in my palm long after I heard him drive away. Alison Buckholtz, a native of Potomac, is a public relations executive and a (mostly) fearless traveler.